I’ve been in the newspaper business for a long time, but I’ve never see a time as we’ve experienced in the last week.

As a kid, I watched as the nation mourned the JFK assassination, saw the tragic events of 1968 on television, watched the moon landing and listened to hours of Watergate hearings.

Later, there was the Iran Embassy takeover, the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Iraq, 9/11 and the great financial crisis of 2008.

Each of those events was a singular moment in our history and each had profound and lasting impacts on our nation.

I have a sense that this moment, the virus crisis, may equal or surpass all of those with its potential to restructure our social, political, economic, medical and psychological order.

•••

On March 12, everything changed as people in the U.S. began to realize the threat of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 could be serious.

We knew it was coming, of course. Since mid-January, the world has watched as the outbreak hit China, then spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and then Europe. Health experts told us it was only a matter of time until the U.S. would see cases turn up.

By March, the West Coast got hit, especially Washington State.

Still, there has been a sense of denial, a feeling that whatever this virus is it wouldn’t be too bad or affect us too much. Our nation's top leaders played down the virus and some politicians said it was just a "hoax."

Despite that, medical professionals have warned us in very stark terms that the nation should take this threat seriously.

I’m not sure exactly what happened on March 12. Maybe it was the president’s address the night before when he stopped all European flights coming into the U.S., a shocking and unexpected move by a president who had spent weeks downplaying the virus.

Whatever it was, things changed on March 12 — many people woke up and knew something big was happening, something surreal.

•••

Not everyone got that memo, however. Some continued to downplay the seriousness of the virus epidemic.

I saw that Thursday at a meeting of local emergency and health officials where GEMA field coordinator Don Strength downplayed the seriousness of the virus to a room overflowing with people who will have to deal with this crisis. He compared it to the flu and said it was being hyped by the media. He was arrogant and condescending both in words and tone. He suggested it was nothing that a little Ibuprofen couldn't deal with.

A lot of people seemed to agree with that view over the weekend. We drove around Jackson County Saturday night to get a sense of what was happening. Most restaurants and bars were open and crowded. Not much social distancing going on that we could tell.

And on Sunday, some churches cancelled services, but others did not, seemingly unconcerned about the virus.

By Monday, all of that seemed to shift again. Many restaurants announced they were closing or going to drive-thru service only. A Jefferson brewpub said it would only open to sell growlers customers could take home to drink. Local governments began to cancel meetings and public hearings.

That shift could be because the area's first virus cases were announced over the weekend at the Braselton hospital and in neighboring Clarke County. That's hitting closer to home and maybe people are starting to realize that this isn't just a situation like the flu.

•••

One of the things that has really made my blood boil during all of this has been the effort by some to blame the media. That has come from our top government officials in Washington D.C. It came last week from GEMA's Strength, who suggested the media was just hyping the virus concerns. And it came over the weekend from a local Jefferson pastor who suggested in a video to his congregation that the media was just whipping up fear.

We in the press always seem to get blamed when some people don't like what we report. We've been branded as "fake news" by politicians.

Frankly, I'm tired of being the whipping post for those who spew anti-media rhetoric. It's our job to ask questions, like why did the U.S. fail to have enough coronavirus tests ready to deal with this crisis. It's our job to report what doctors and medical leaders are saying about the virus and whether or not it is a threat to our lives.

We don't make this stuff up. And unlike social media, we don't peddle rumors and misinformation. The traditional media is trying to report a very difficult story in a very trying environment. We would be negligent to downplay this medical emergency just to appease certain politicians.

Those of us in the traditional media believe that if the public has accurate information, citizens will be able to make better decisions for themselves and their families. That's our job.

Politicians, on the other hand, want to control the flow of information to suit their own agenda. And when they can't control the media, they shout "fake news" in an effort to destroy the credibility of real reporting.

The press isn't the bad guy in this crisis and those who are saying otherwise, including politicians, preachers and low-level government officials, are simply ignorant.

•••

Here's the reality: Nobody knows just how bad this virus may turn out to be. We do know what it's doing in other countries, such as Italy where the health care system is overwhelmed with sick and dying patients.

And we know that viruses don't give a damn what political party you belong to, or your status in life. We're all at risk.

For those who don't get sick, or have to care for a sick family member, there's the huge economic and social fallout from this crisis. Nobody is going to escape unchanged. The pace and structure of our lives is being dramatically altered, perhaps for several months and years to come.

None of that is to say we should panic, or wallow in fear. But we do need to be prepared for some difficult days ahead.

The best way to do that is to be informed with accurate news and focused on our collective responsibility to take care of our community, especially those older citizens who are the most vulnerable among us.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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